Irresponsible to Call DeSantis Migrant Flights Human Trafficking: Advocates

Democrats are calling for an investigation into whether Florida Governor Ron DeSantis' decision to transport migrants from Texas to sanctuary cities in blue states constitutes human trafficking. But advocacy groups are cautioning DeSantis' critics from making any accusations with limited information this early on.

DeSantis' decision to fly about 50 mainly Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Martha's Vineyard last week is part of an ongoing Republican effort to spotlight immigration issues under the Biden administration. In the last five months, Texas Governor Greg Abbott and Arizona Governor Doug Ducey have bussed thousands of migrants to cities like New York City, Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

Democratic officials in Massachusetts, Florida and California have all urged the Justice Department to investigate DeSantis' move. Governor Gavin Newsom has referred to the stunt as "inhumane efforts to use kids as political pawns" while Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez accused DeSantis and Abbott of committing "crimes against humanity on refugees." Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also criticized GOP politicians for exacerbating the border situation "to the extent of literally human trafficking."

DeSantis Migrants Human Trafficking
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks at the Wyndham Hotel on August 19, 2022, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Last week, DeSantis flew about 50 mainly Venezuelan migrants from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard in an effort to spotlight immigration issues. Jeff Swensen/Stringer

In a statement made on Thursday, Catherine Chen, CEO of Polaris, the leading organization working to end sex and labor trafficking in North America, agreed that migrants were being used for political gain. However, she called it "irresponsible" to accuse someone of human trafficking before a thorough investigation. "Without an investigation of exactly what happened before migrants were put on a plane and unwittingly used for political gain, it would be irresponsible to accuse anyone of trafficking."

In an interview with Newsweek, Chen warned that it has become an increasingly popular trend among political figures to throw around terms like human trafficking, which she said has the unintended consequence of "trivializing or erasing survivors' real, lived experiences."

"It somehow has become fashionable for politicians to accuse each other of being traffickers or pedophiles and the like. This is deeply harmful to people who've actually survived what is really terrible harm and abuse," she said, adding that the political name-calling "betrays how much harm and exploitation and calculation and stealing of earnings and wages that have happened to trafficking survivors."

Chen also emphasized that human trafficking is a federal crime with a clear legal definition.

"Human trafficking in the use of force, fraud or coercion to exploit other people for financial or personal gain," Chen said in her Thursday statement. "Despite popular misconception, trafficking has nothing to do with transportation." While the terms are often used together, human trafficking differs from human smuggling, which is the business of transporting people illegally across an international border.

When applying the criminal definition of human trafficking to the recent events involving asylum seekers, many have focused on the fraud aspect. Several outlets have reported that the migrants who were flown to Boston by DeSantis had been misled about the circumstances of their arrival, including false promises of employment and housing at their destination.

DeSantis has asserted that some of the allegations have been "nonsense," adding on Monday that the migrants "were in really, really bad shape." "Why wouldn't they want to go, given where they were?" he told Fox News' Sean Hannity.

On Tuesday, migrants flown to Martha's Vineyard filed a class action lawsuit against DeSantis and other Florida officials accusing them of engaging in "a premeditated, fraudulent, and illegal scheme centered on exploiting [them] for the sole purpose of advancing their own personal, financial and political interests."

Polaris noted that these reports echo the experiences that human trafficking victims, specifically among migrants who are often subject to exploitation due to their limited English proficiency and unfamiliarity with U.S. labor and immigration laws. A study conducted by the organization between 2018 and 2020 found that roughly a third of migrants reported "misrepresentation of destination/work situation" as part of their trafficking experience.

Chen said, "there is a case for investigating it as trafficking" if the migrants flown to Massachusetts were defrauded for material gain, "including that of an elected official."

Her remarks were echoed by former FBI agent Frank Figliuzzi, who said that while he thought there was a violation of law with the recent transportation of migrants, people should still avoid jumping to conclusions of human trafficking.

"People keep throwing around the term 'human trafficking,'" Figliuzzi said on a Saturday episode of the "Dean Obeidallah Show." "Be careful with that. I don't think it violates the human trafficking statues, but I absolutely think that it violates a law that says you can't transport across state lines, undocumented migrants, period, end of discussion."

Chen emphasized to Newsweek that human trafficking remains a bipartisan issue and that cases of suffering and exploitation extend beyond party politics. She said that Polaris, which also operates the National Human Trafficking Hotline, treats every report with the same care required in each complex situation.

"We are not interested in putting our thumb on the scale for one political party or another," she said. "Call it trafficking if it is in fact trafficking. And if it's not, stop using the name calling and the labeling as a political football."